Sunday, December 11, 2011

LP Review - Tony Jones, Kenny Wollesen & Charles Burnham - Pitch, Rhythm & Conciousness

Tony Jones - Kenny Wollesen - Charles Burnham
Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness

This might be the album that can introduce straight ahead jazz fans to free improvisation. Whereas most free music can scare greenhorns away with its aggresive energy and extended technique, Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness sounds subdued, bringing together gentle, lyrical ideas with the loose approach to group interaction. It's banded into nine individual tracks but it flows like one continuous piece, where a few written ideas launch the trio and bring them back together at certain times to make sure things remain cohesive. Although there are moments when things sound extremely spare and open, the trio typically keeps a mood flowing so that the listener's mind won't wander.

Tenor saxophonist Tony Jones, who acts as a de facto leader, hails from Berkeley where he grew up playing with trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Jessica Fuchs (now his wife Jessica Jones) and multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, the latter who lead the group Hieroglyphics Ensemble, which added "New York" to their name after relocating there in the '90s. (The group played on Don Cherry's Multikulti album in 1990.)

Burnham might be best known for his performance on James Blood Ulmer's trio album Odyssey, but he has also worked with Henry Threadgill and Cassandra Wilson, among others. Wollesen, another Bay Area resident, played with Mrs. Jones when he was younger, and has become pretty ubiquitous due to work everyone from Bill Frisell and Myra Melford to Tom Waits and David Byrne.

Wollesen's contributions to this album are the icing on the cake, but it's worth starting at that point and working backwards. He skips a traditional trap kit, and plays nothing but bells, gongs and shakers throughout the album. Without any attempt to either keep pulse or keep away from it, Wollesen adds to the texture of the music, providing shape and direction to the sounds his co-conspirators create. There are moments when he isn't heard prominently, but even then his presence can be felt.

Jones maintains a strong lyrical stance throughout the album, staying in a warm, thoughful mood rather than exploring extreme dynamics of his instrument. Only two of the tracks have songwriting credit (his) and it's clear these are both preconceived themes that he brought to the table. "Dear Toy" opens the set with a minor ballad, where he concentrates on the middle register after following a Burnham solo with some long tones.

Burnham's playing brings up some of the most intriguing moments of the album. While he does bow gracefully, he also plucks his instrument's strings, making it sound like a koto or some other pungent Asian instrument. It makes a great introduction to "Billie," where Jones comes in with a mournful melody that evokes a stretched-out "You Don't Know What Love Is" (I feel like I hear this earlier in the set too). If they named the piece for the singer who spelled her name that way, they certainly good the mood right. In "Jessie," Burnham sounds like he's playing a banjo. This track is the only one, however, that stays a little too spare. Wollesen's gongs move to the forefront, over the "banjo" notes and soft tenor pedal points, but no one steps up to solo. But like all the tracks on the album, it doesn't overstay its welcome. (One track lasts just over seven minutes, the rest average three to five minutes.)

There's one other interesting quality to Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness that could have been the opening statement had I not wanted to put the music itself up front: Tactile copies of the album are available only on vinyl, with digital downloads or MP3s available too. Last year around this time, on this blog, I opined that Nels Cline's Dirty Baby should be purchased not only because it was a great album but to give Cryptogramophone positive reinforcement for having the guts to release a double-CD set with two elaborate booklets at a time when any release is a financial risk.

The same should be said for Tony Jones. It's hard enough playing adventurous, bold music and releasing it on compact discs. But putting it out on vinyl shows a true commitment to your craft and to the people who influenced you (I think it's safe to say that Jones' formative years of music listening happened when vinyl was in its prime). The people who still buy vinyl are the ones who love music, which of course is a select group. Hopefully enough of them will check this release out because they won't be disappointed. Then they can play it for their friends who are scared of free jazz, and they will open their ears more and suddenly the whole of avant garde jazz will have a bigger fan base!, not really. I'm not that naive and hopeful. But this is a great album and a great format in which to hear it.

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